How can running backwards help you to run forwards? The question itself might sound a little absurd, but read on… Dave Mott, lead physiotherapist and managing director of Physio Fitness, shares his perspective on this technique and its benefits.
The pros of running backwards
As a specialist sports physio, we often recommend backward and sideways running to help the recovery of certain running injuries. However, it is becoming more and more obvious to us that running backwards has many advantages, whether you have an injury or not.
In China, they have been running backwards for hundreds of years! I remember qualifying as a physiotherapist over 20 years ago thinking how can the Chinese think that sticking needles in someone with pain can help them? It has now been proven by many western studies to be of great help, and physios and GPs now use acupuncture regularly and to great effect. The point is (excuse the pun), that I am beginning to think they know something that we don’t about running backwards!
As a runner, there can be nothing worse than knowing that you can’t (or shouldn’t) run because of injury. So often runners are told by their GP or therapist to stop running so that their injury can recover. However, here at Physio Fitness we try and keep patients running as much as possible, even if it means running backwards. Forward running puts a lot of pressure on the hamstrings and knees, but running backwards strengthens the opposing muscle groups. So, you might be able to maintain your fitness regime even if you have back pain or shin splints, for example.
Professor Barry Bates was among the first to publish findings on the benefits of backward running. In his study, Bates claims the exercise can help you maintain a more upright posture, and also lessens the impact on your knees. Most people will heel strike with the knee in an almost extended (straight) knee position when running forward. This potentially drives force through the joint to a much higher extent than when running backwards when heel strike and full knee extension never actually occurs.
Why it works
Runners are often hip flexor and/or hamstring dominant. This is predominantly due to lack of contribution from their glutes (see a sports physio to assess this possible dominance pattern). The lack of gluteal drive means the hip flexors must excessively ‘pull’ the leg through the swing phase while the opposite leg is pushing the body forward on ground contact by using the hamstrings, which are not in a biomechanically ideal position to do so.
Let’s reverse the situation and look at a runner going backwards; the glutes are in a much more advantageous position biomechanically to drive the body forward on ground impact, so the hamstrings become far less ‘enthusiastic’. Also, the hip flexors do not need to work as hard. This helps the runner maintain a much-improved ‘balance’ of agonists to antagonists (front and back muscles).
However, we can go further than this when we consider the concept of recruitment. As part of a warm up, professional athletes now do ‘recruitment exercises’ to help stimulate muscle groups that are specific to the sport they are warming up for. This leads to better recruitment of muscles that produce movement, speed and power, which results in improved performance and reduced chances of injury.
So, running backwards as part of training or warm-up can help recruit the glutes, which are then more likely to activate when the runner switches to running forward. Subsequently the hamstrings and hip flexors are less likely to ‘over activate’ or ‘work excessively’ and the whole pattern of driving the body forward becomes more efficient and less injury prone. Eureka!
The findings of two studies, one published in 2011 by researchers from the University of Milan, and another by scientists from Cardiff University in Wales last year, suggest that reverse runners pound the earth more softly, thereby reducing the risk of knee injuries. I would go further and suggest that your hips and back are also less likely to receive the impact of forward runners.
Running backwards requires more effort in terms of movement because it is more difficult to move from one point to another.
It has been said that taking 100 steps backward is the same as taking 1,000 steps forward, and that going backward burns a fifth more calories than running forward (over the same distance). For those who are busy, going backward burns more calories in a shorter period of time. This gives everyone the chance to work out, no matter how hectic your schedule.
It is the great way to help cure the frequent deficiency between anterior and posterior chain muscle groups – the hamstrings/calves/glutes and quads.
Of course, I am not advocating that everyone should run backwards all of the time. However, it is something that all runners should consider doing some of the time, for the reasons I have highlighted in this article with some good research to back it up.
Putting it into practice
Even though there are many good reasons to run backwards, there are also risks that you should be aware of. The most obvious problem is that you can’t see what potentially dangerous objects are in your path. You can turn your head to look over your shoulder, but this will slow you down and may strain your neck.
However, you shouldn’t let these issues stop you. Follow these suggestions to reduce the risks:
1. Start somewhere safe
Using a track is a good idea for several reasons. Tracks are usually well maintained so there won’t be rocks, tree limbs or holes for you to stumble over. They are out of traffic and generally aren’t crowded. They also have painted lanes, so you don’t have to look over your shoulder to see where you are going. You can just follow the lines.
2. Start off by walking
Because backward movement has a completely different feel than forward motion, you should become familiar with the activity before you really get going. Once you feel comfortable, start with slow, short runs.
3. Initially go with a partner
A partner can run forward and watch where you are going. Frequently swapping who runs forward and who goes backward is a good idea and great fun.
4. Watch your form
You don’t want to have too much bend
in your knee. You will naturally land on your toes. Also, don’t lean too far back or you’ll throw your balance off and fall over. However, my experience is that most runners have a natural way of running backwards and if they try and change it to drastically it becomes harder to perform.
5. See a sports physio if you are injured
Don’t just go backward running if you have pain running forward. Depending on the injury, you may or may not benefit from running backwards. So see a good sports physio to first diagnose the injury but also to recommend the best course of action.
The benefits to running backwards are abundant. If you incorporate backward running into your regular routine, or even just your warm up, you will lessen the stress on the body that forward running causes and you will keep your workouts fresh and exciting.
Physio Fitness, based in Dorset, aims to give everyone access to the best sport specialist physiotherapy advice and treatment. Their goal is to get you back to doing what you love, and then help you maintain your fitness to ensure you become better conditioned and stronger than pre-injury. The team have worked with athletes in nearly every area of sport, from recreational gym goers to international standard runners.